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Proud of Our Czech Roots

By Janel Souhrada Stephens – (Written in 1996)

Dave and Janel Stephens having breakfast at Jiri's Summer House 10 years after their first visit
to the Czech Republic (picture taken September 2006)

Dave and I expected our trip to the Czech Republic in June 1996 to be exciting and adventuresome. What we did not expect was to have our ‘hearts’ become so touched by the people we met and the stories they told. The stories tell of a people who have survived and triumphed. They are working so hard in an economy that is yet to catch up with the rest of the world. One worker we met earns $0.83 per hour in a dress factory. But they are so happy to be free that nothing else matters.

The Souhradas and Vaniceks in the Czech Republic, much like their U.S. cousins, were very industrious and hard working. As a result of their hard work they had acquired larger amounts of land which caused problems when an aggressor like Hitler and the communists came along. Josef Souhrada, owner of the Souhrada property, went to prison in 1941, returning to freedom in 1944 only to die. The priest at his funeral said, "Hitler murdered him".  After the 2nd World War the farms went to Aneska and Marie Souhrada. When the communists came — they too had to go to jail, Aneska for five years and Marie for seven.


We had the pleasure of meeting Aneska and Marie. They live in a one bedroom communist built high rise with few of the luxuries that we Americans would take for granted.  Yet some geraniums bloom on the window sills and Aneska, age 75, hugs and loves — shares some of her crochet work with me and gave us three crystal glasses handed down in her family for generations. Their nephew, Jiri Souhrada and his wife, Vera, are their link to the outside world and are very kind to them.

Aneska, Jiri and Marie Souhrada (June, 1996)

Vera's mother, age 70, had glaucoma 20 years ago. The communist doctor took out her eye rather than treat it. Vera’s brother was one of the smartest students to go to his school in Pisek. The teachers told Vera’s parents he must go to school (high school).  Vera's dad went to Prague to see the Commissioner of Education. This was a big deal for someone to do, but the commissioner said "No". If they would have had money to bribe the commissioner they would have been more successful. Everyone suffered from having had the communists in charge. 

I asked Jiri what he was thinking about in 1968 when the communist tanks squelched the uprising in Prague. He shrugs his shoulders and says, "I go to work in the factory after grade school. I know nothing about it." All mass communications were controlled by the communist government so people had little knowledge of happenings they did not personally see. One of the sad things was seeing the ugly gray cement high rise apartment buildings the communists built for the people to live in when they were forced to move from their villages into the cities because their land and their means of making a living had been taken from them. Knowing our people’s great love of land and need for nurturing our plants, this must have been devastating. We still saw flowers hanging beautifully from all the 3 foot by 8-foot balconies on every floor of the high rises. We saw rented garden plots within biking or walking distance of the larger towns. We saw beautiful fenced gardens like Jiri and Vera's summer house and the Vanicek home and the other people who had survived or returned to their villages. There is a lot of restoration going on — all housing and buildings were neglected for 40 years, as well as the land. Someone said the communists did in 40 years what the Turks couldn’t do in 300. The Czechs we met appreciated the people from the United States. One Sunday Jiri stopped his car and we went into a pub to hear a 300 year old "pIayer orchestra". When the pub owner found out we were from the United States he asked Jiri to translate, "l remember - I am 14 - May 12, 1945 - 2:00 p.m. - American tanks liberate us!" He then pulled my head down and put my ear next to his heart. "I must still hear his heart beat with excitement.”

We encourage you to go - experience for yourselves - send your children - invite their school children to come here. We have fantastic connections for exchanges and for your trip over there. It is truly an experience to be a part of our people’s appreciation of and joy for democracy and freedom. They never thought they could be free again without a war. We celebrate their freedom!

By Janel Souhrada Stephens